Writing the story of his childhood, Barack Obama narrates an incident in which his father was drinking in a local bar, when a white man abruptly announced that he shouldn’t have to drink “next to a nigger”. The bar fell silent, expecting a fight. Instead, Obama’s father “walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man”. When the speech finished, the white man reached into his pocket and handed over a $100 on the spot; so ashamed of himself he wanted to purchase forgiveness.
Eighteen months ago, Presidential prediction markets had Obama just a 1 in 50 shot of winning the nomination. Now, he is a 4 in 5 chance of being the Democratic nominee. Obama’s meteoric rise can be traced to two themes - hope and bipartisanship. But how has he managed to turn apparent platitudes into rallying cries? And could a little of the Obama magic rub off on Australia’s politicians?
Obama’s ability to use powerful rhetoric to inspire others has drawn comparisons with John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. Few doubt that he is one of the best speakers of his generation. Yet the critics argue that stirring oratory matters less than solid public policy. So long as you get the ideas right, who cares whether you can make a crowd laugh and cry?
The problem with this critique is that it misses the point that successful politics is about building and maintaining coalitions. This is particularly true of the United States president, but also to a lesser extent of the Australian prime minister, who generally must win over a hostile Senate in order to pass legislation.
Creating broad-based coalitions is difficult if you regard your political opponents as knaves and ideologues. What is striking about Obama is that he goes out of his way to see the reasonableness in the other side’s positions. “Spend time actually talking to Americans”, he writes in his most recent book, “and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspiration than the popular culture allows.”
Recognising that your political opponents are actually striving towards a better world sounds simple; but it is surprising how rarely it is done in Australia. Most federal politicians, and most federal political staffers, have no friendships with anyone from another party. This lack of social contact makes it easy for them to caricature and stereotype their opponents; and stymies the attempt to build lasting political coalitions for change.
What many political players miss is that it is possible to respect and understand your opponents’ perspectives without compromising your own beliefs. Obama has one of the most left-wing voting records in the Senate, but that hasn’t stopped him from criticising the left-wing Daily Kos blog for its ad hominem style. In Australia, one wishes that more politicians walked into Question Time aiming to “disagree without being disagreeable”.
While the Rudd Government has quickly demonstrated its commitment to rigorous public policy, it would be good to see it governing in both poetry and prose. The bipartisan “war cabinet” to address Indigenous disadvantage is a useful start, but more could be done that unites the values of both left and right.
Cutting back on middle-class welfare, improving the performance of schools in disadvantaged areas, improving the incentives for low-skill workers to join the labour market, and carrying out a raft of randomised trials are all initiatives that should be able to transcend the political divide. Yet without bipartisan support, it is easy to see how vested interests will torpedo them one by one.
How positive should we be about the politics of hope and bipartisanship in Australia? To answer this question, I searched the parliamentary database for speeches by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, looking to see how often each used “hope” and “bipartisan”. To account for the number of speeches they had given, I then normalised this using other common parliamentary words: “speaker” and “member”. A rough proxy, to be sure, but one that might nonetheless give insights into the rhetorical priorities of Australia’s last four Prime Ministers.
According to this simple metric, Bob Hawke is the prime minister who has spoken most about hope, while Kevin Rudd is the prime minister who has spoken most about bipartisanship (Paul Keating scores lowest on both measures). Perhaps Rudd’s speechwriting team should take a leaf from Hawke’s book. And maybe they can learn from Obama’s style, and find fresh ways to tap into the fundamental optimism of the Australian people.
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